This is a post about a fabulous “Spanish” or “Manila” shawl on display in the Chinese section of the V&A Museum in London.
One of the things that I love best about revisiting my favourite museums is the possibility of noticing and then focussing on an object that one has previously passed by. I know that I have walked past this shawl many times and I have even stopped to look at it, yet it was only on my last visit that the full beauty and quality of this item fully struck home.
The “Manton de Manila” has a long history in Spain. The shawls were made in South China but the name comes from the port of Manila in the Philippines. The Philippines became a Spanish colony in 1565 and was part of New Spain, administered from Mexico. This meant that Asian goods for the Spanish market were shipped on “Manila Galleons” to the west coast of Mexico, then transported overland to the port of Veracruz for shipment to Spain.
The early shawls were embroidered with native Chinese motifs but the dragons, pagodas, etc., were soon replaced by colourful flowers and other images more suited to the customers taste. The other big addition the Spanish made was the long swaying fringe which provided the movement that made the shawl such a classic piece of flamenco costume.
This shawl is striking for the quality of the embroidery. This piece was made purely as a commercial export product, with no pretensions to being art, yet both the workmanship and the design are full of vitality. This design is also notable for the distinctly Chinese elements in the design, such as the “lion dogs”.
The shawl dates from the second half of the19th century when the “Spanish shawl” became an important fashion accessory throughout Europe and North America. In Britain they were frequently put to another use, commonly being employed as a decorative cover for grand pianos.
For some wonderful photographs of flamenco dancers and their shawls please see Ottoman Dandy’s post.